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Astronomy Education in the United States


7. Amateur Astronomers

The U.S. has a large population of amateur astronomers, people whose hobby is astronomical observing or following astronomical developments in a serious sort of way. I like to divide the amateur community into three categories: Research-level amateurs are those who have sophisticated telescopes and detectors, or who carry out serious observing programs. These amateurs are usually members of such specialized organizations as the American Association of Variable Star Observers, Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers, or the International Amateur-Professional Photoelectric Photometry Group, or they are working in conjunction with a professional astronomer in their community. There are probably not more than a few hundred of this group in our country.

Observing amateurs are those who have a telescope and regularly take it out for observing the sky, either for their own amusement or with a community or school group. These amateurs are frequently members of some of the more than 200 amateur clubs in the U.S., many of which are, in turn, members of the umbrella organization called the Astronomical League. The League currently has a combined membership of almost 13,000 people. Armchair amateurs, on the other hand, are those who mainly prefer to read about astronomy and may or may not do some casual observing from time to time. Some of these amateurs are members of local clubs, but many are not, and pursue their interest in astronomy through magazines or books they read, programs they watch on television, and lecture series they may attend. Some are members of such national organizations as the Astronomical Society of the Pacific or the Planetary Society. New converts to this group these days can come from those browsing the many interesting astronomy rest-stops on the information superhighway.

Many members of the three groups are tied together by the two main magazines for amateurs, Sky & Telescope and Astronomy. Astronomy had a circulation in 1996 of 170,000, while S&T was at 110,000. Estimates of the total number of amateurs in the U.S. range from 200,000 to 500,000, often depending on how exactly you define the term. In any case, this figure, 40 to 100 times the number of professional astronomers, represents a tremendous population with potential in astronomy education.

Many amateurs are already involved in education, by going for occasional visits to local schools or putting on neighborhood star parties, where youngsters get their first look through a telescope. The amateur community organizes a National Astronomy Day each spring, where they make a special effort to bring telescopes to where people are and show them the night sky. The Astronomical League has a number of educational programs and publications, although they are limited by being purely volunteer efforts with no budget to support them.

But much more could be done. Many amateurs have time, knowledge, energy, and enthusiasm, which could much more actively be harnessed in the service of education. Some professional astronomers and educators worry that amateurs will tell students erroneous things; but at the level of a 5th grade class, the physics of quasar energy mechanisms isn't really a relevant topic. The phases of the Moon, why telescopes are needed to observe celestial objects, or the joys of hunting comets are much more appropriate to the reasoning level of the youngsters.

This was the thought behind Project ASTRO, a pilot program in the early 1990's at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (supported by the National Science Foundation and NASA): to set up ongoing partnerships between amateur (and professional) astronomers and 4th to 9th grade teachers in sites around California. After a training workshop for the partners, astronomers visited "their" classroom not once, but at least four times (some went as many as 10 times), and worked with the teacher to present age-appropriate hands-on classroom and after-school activities.

We found that, with proper training, and when they are provided with a suite of good activities and teaching resources, amateurs (and professionals) can do an excellent job in helping students get excited about astronomy and science in general. Project ASTRO has produced The Universe at Your Fingertips, an 815-page loose-leaf notebook of exemplary activities, resource lists, and teaching suggestions that incorporate the best ideas from our project and many others around the country, which is now in its second printing and is being used by thousands of scientists and educators around the world. A How-to Manual for Astronomer-Educator Partnerships and a short video are also available through the project.

The pilot program was so successful that NSF has funded the expansion of the program to nine sites around the country, from Boston to Seattle. The Clark Foundation is supporting a tenth site in Salt Lake City. The program also offers training workshops for interested partners at meetings attended by either professional or amateur astronomers. Given the limited number of professional astronomers in the country, however, any expansion of the program will clearly depend on the active involvement of the amateur community.

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8. Astronomy Interpretation Community

In some ways, the interpreters to the public are the most far-reaching part of the astronomy education community, because they include the media. It is sobering to remember that one episode of "Unsolved Mysteries" on television is seen by far more people than all the students any of us will ever teach during our entire careers.

The astronomy interpretation community includes editors and reporters at daily newspapers and magazines, producers and writers on radio & television, the authors of introductory books on astronomical topics, the writers of children's books, and the authors of astronomy software and Web-sites. Let's look at this world briefly:

A. Magazines

If you examine a list of the top 100 magazines by circulation, you do find some rays of hope amidst the gathering darkness of gossip and entertainment magazines. In 1994, there was one in the top 5 U.S. magazines that regularly features very high quality astronomy articles: can you guess which magazine that is? It's National Geographic (with a circulation of about 9.5 million).

In the top 20, we have Time and Newsweek, both of which have had excellent physical science reporting, although both are now tending toward shorter and more superficial articles. The top 30 includes Smithsonian and the top 40, Popular Science. And one of the largest circulation periodicals in the country, the Sunday newspaper supplement called Parade (which is mostly pap), regularly featured wonderful essays by the late Carl Sagan which extolled the scientific perspective and debunk popular pseudo-sciences. David Levy (the comet hunter) has now been hired to continue this series.

In the category of smaller circulation special interest magazines, we have a number that do an excellent job of reporting astronomy to their readers: In addition to Sky & Telescope and Astronomy (which we have already mentioned), there are Discover, Scientific American, American Scientist, and Air and Space. Excellent and regular coverage also appears in the news pages of such magazines as Science, Nature, or Science News. Plus many of the astronomical and space interest societies issue their own magazines, such as The Planetary Report from the Planetary Society, Mercury from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, or Ad Astra from the National Space Society. Here, although specialist occasionally complain about a subtle point being missed, the reporting is very, very good indeed, and astronomy stands out among sciences as receiving and offering the best coverage for readers with a serious interest in the field. Of course such readers are relatively small in number compared to the population of the country.

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